All-Native jury for James Smith Cree Nation probes 1 of many needed reforms, veteran attorney says | Pro IQRA News

Pro IQRA News Updates.

An all-Indigenous jury for the inquests into the recent stabbing in Saskatchewan is a positive step, but many other legal reforms are urgently needed, says veteran Saskatoon lawyer Donald Worme.

Worme, the former Truth and Reconciliation Commission counsel, has participated in dozens of inquests, including the investigation into the freezing deaths of several Indigenous men in and around Saskatoon that involved police more than 20 years ago.

Saskatchewan’s chief coroner, Clive Weighill, has announced investigations into the deaths of 12 people in connection with the recent rampage, including prime suspect Myles Sanderson. Weighill said he would like to see exclusively Indigenous juries for the inquests, which are likely to take place next year.

Worme welcomed the announcement, but said the justice system generally remains racist at every level. He said justice requires more than indigenous juries or police forces – it requires fundamental change of the power structures, the methods and the intent of the justice system.

CBC reporter Jason Warick spoke with Worme Thursday afternoon at his Saskatoon office, which is located on one of Canada’s first urban reserves.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On Chief Coroner Clive Weighill says he would like to see all-Indigenous juries for the James Smith Cree Nation inquests:

Worme: Well, I think Coroner Weighill was simply stating the circumstances of the law that currently exists and has existed for a very long time in this province. It is that a jury must be selected from the community that bears the impact of the events to be investigated. It should be a jury of some of your peers.

That he should even mention it, I think, really underscores the fact that the law was not applied fairly.

Look at virtually any jury trial case where there is a non-Indigenous accused and an Indigenous victim, such as the [Gerald] Stanley case. Every individual who was potentially indigenous – all that was needed was to be browner than the next guy – and you were off the jury.

What does that tell you? I think this tells us that Lady Justice is not blind, at least as far as indigenous people are concerned.

I think it’s troubling that we even have to have this discussion.

A composite photo of ten people.
An inquest will be held next year for the James Smith Cree Nation stabbing victims: top row (L-R) Thomas Burns, Carol Burns, Gregory Burns, Lydia Gloria Burns and Bonnie Goodvoice-Burns. Bottom row (L-R): Lana Head, Christian Head, Robert Sanderson, Wesley Petterson and Earl Burns Sr. This will include one-time suspect Damien Sanderson. The main suspect, Myles Sanderson, will be the subject of a separate inquest. (Saskatchewan RCMP, Sask First Nations Veterans Association/Facebook)

On racism in the legal system:

Racial issues infect the justice system as a whole. It’s not a secret. The courts recognized this. The Supreme Court of Canada recognized this.

These stereotypes applied against indigenous people continue to harm indigenous communities. Why is that objectivity the sole province of white people? Look at the comments that followed the appointment of Mrs. Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin, who went to the Supreme Court of Canada last month.

Comment was “Ah, she mustn’t sit on any native affairs.” Why? Is she biased But it’s not the other way around [for white judges].

On indigenous-led reforms:

For the last 35 years of my career – and there were many before me – there have been calls for an indigenous justice system.

Coroner Weighill’s proposal for Aboriginal jurors is not a solution to the problem. This ignores the fact that it should be a native process throughout. Would it be different? Well, I don’t know because we’ve never been given that opportunity.

I argue that it would be different because of the principles of restorative justice that we talk about when we think about what a justice system might look like.

It takes the catastrophic events that occurred [at James Smith Cree Nation] to even have a conversation about indigenous policing.

We have the answers in our community. We have the people in our community who have stuck to these principles and are able to make realistic changes in our communities.

On the urgency of changes:

Indigenous people are not going to sit around. We can not wait. We no longer have the luxury of time and these events will not stop occurring.

Indigenous jurors alone are not going to solve the problem.

I worry that my new grandchild will inherit this system and that I have not been able to make the kind of changes that our communities need.

Even as a lawyer, I still get mistaken for the accused.

Even now I temper what I say because I don’t want to be confined by those stereotypes. I don’t want to be the angry Indian.

Do I want to be optimistic? Absolutely. But it’s worrying and it’s extremely frustrating, trying to move things just a little bit.

The system was created for white people. It was created to oppress indigenous people, to remove us from our land and resources. There is no doubt about it.

The institutions that were complicit in it still continue and are still bound by the same stereotypical thinking of the 18th century.

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